All the theatrical antics of the European Research Group in recent days may have served the Prime Minister rather well after all. Not only was she able gleefully to tell Nick Robinson how ‘irritated’ she is by the recent behaviour of dozens of her own MPs, but the attention it has drawn also gives her a much-needed respite from the public dismantling of the Chequers plan. Two Brexit birds with one Mogg-shaped stone, you might say.
Nonetheless, multiple big questions continue to loom. Given the speed at which October deadlines are racing towards us, Dominic Raab’s recent decision to pull his socks up and puff his chest out is dangerously close to being too little, too late. The Brexit Secretary wrote a mostly intelligent article in the Daily Telegraph last week in which, among other things, he decried shameful scaremongering about vital supply shortages in case of No Deal (which, by the way, is a thousand times more heinous than anything Boris Johnson or Vote Leave did during the referendum campaign).
The most encouraging statement in Raab’s piece comes in the penultimate paragraph in which he reasserts that ‘there is no deal without the whole deal’ and, crucially, that the UK government will refuse to pay any so-called divorce bill unless a comprehensive deal is reached with the EU. This declaration, though necessary, is insufficient; we ought to refuse to pay the EU a single penny during the entire Brexit process.
A paper published by the EU in June last year spoke of a ‘financial settlement’ to be paid by the UK in terms that suggested the matter was done and dusted, as if our government had unconditionally agreed to hand over tens of billions of euros. One can imagine Juncker and Barnier hunched over a laptop writing this document in keen competition to see who could use the word ‘obligation’ the most times in a single paragraph.
Even if the negotiations are successful and the two sides reach an acceptable trade arrangement, the notion that we should be made to pay anything more than the cost of a double espresso to seal the deal is frankly outrageous. Since when is a country obliged to raid its piggy bank to do a mutually beneficial trade deal with a bloc such as the EU? That is as ridiculous as a shopkeeper charging you a substantial fee at the door for the privilege of entering the shop and giving him your custom. Something fundamental must have changed since Canada’s CETA deal in 2014, which didn’t cost the Canadians anything.
Of course, this divorce is delightfully multifaceted. In a marriage that goes back nearly half a century, even a miraculously amicable trade deal would not be sufficient to tie up all the loose ends in the relationship so that nobody strangles anybody else when the kids change hands at the weekend. There are various other factors which the Euro crew like to shout about (and demand cash for), predominantly concerning promises the UK has supposedly made to fund EU expenditures.
Covering any of these costs would be nothing less than daylight robbery and being seen to make these concessions would be monumentally damaging to the UK’s negotiating position as it seeks free trade deals with other countries and blocs around the world. There is no need for us to ‘honour our commitments’ to European pay-outs any more than for David Cameron to continue to reside in 10 Downing Street. He was elected for a five-year term in 2015, was he not? But circumstances have changed, and it would now be preposterous for him to turn up at May’s door carrying a battered red briefcase and a plastic bag full of old copies of the Standard.
Speaking of Cameron, back in 2013 he agreed (most likely at the direction of co-Prime Minister George Osborne) to contribute to the annual EU budget up to and including 2020, amounting to a €22billion payment for us when we leave in March next year. Topping up the divorce bill is €39billion of contributions to currently non-existent EU projects that some British minister half-heartedly agreed to a decade ago along with yet more bailout funds for the likes of Greece. It would be totally ridiculous for us to pay for projects that will take place after we have left and from which we will never reap any benefits, regardless of what might have been agreed in years past.
Take this analogy: a large group of people walk into a bakery and express interest in cakes. The baker is delighted; he disappears under the counter and emerges with a large box full of iced goodies. The customers converse briefly, then announce that they have changed their minds and leave the shop. Would the baker be within his rights to chase after them, demand the payment in full and then run back to the shop and sell the cakes to someone else?
The bakery of Brexit is one that shows no signs of becoming any more pleasant to deal with. At this point, we can only hope that May’s government doesn’t misplace its spine over the next few months or else we might end up getting monumentally ripped off over a cardboard box of soggy iced fingers.